Otherness and other pillars of a new moral economy
“So, what is the reason for your existence?” the German professor at a Chinese business school reception in Shanghai asked me, to start a conversation. I felt like ad man Don Draper in the TV series Mad Men when his false identity is unveiled. Who are you really? Caught off guard, I answered: “I’m a marketer.” The conversation moved on, others had wittier sound bites to contribute, and my unease continued. It had been weighing on me since I had put my foot on Chinese soil a few days earlier, and here in this beautiful mansion, confiscated by the government from the corrupt former mayor of Shanghai, it was a steady companion.
You may think that the homogenized cosmopolitan settings of the tier one cities Beijing and Shanghai would seem familiar and comforting to a seasoned Western business traveler like me, but this time the glitzy, uber-capitalist façade did not alleviate my profound sense of dislocation and alienation. I was a stranger and everything was strange to me. This sentiment was exacerbated when I checked into the Opposite House, a chic designer hotel in Beijing’s Sanlitun village district that literally comprises of two opposing halves, each housing generous rooms, connected through a vast space underneath, which is used as both art gallery and lobby. Designed by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma and catering to the ‘global soul,’ it was meant to make you feel at home in an open, accessible space of kindness, but it did the opposite to me. It manifested the Otherness of my being here, in the heart of this strange city, with other strangers, who, like me, probably had no clue and so, like me, just marveled at the strangeness of it all.
It occurred to me that the Opposite House was a metaphor for some of the issues I had been pondering for the past few months. “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, and while his words were infinitely wise, I thought that a more intelligent mind than mine may very well hold the two opposites, in Beijing or anywhere, but perhaps even the most intelligent mind would not necessarily be happy in doing so. It’s hard to be happy if you are denied a happy ending, and it’s an unpleasant, arduous task to withstand the temptation to reconcile dual or multiple truths. We are hardwired to believe – and to believe in one truth.
Having just worked through the intricacies of integrating a marketing function and harmonizing two brands (and very different business cultures), I know how exhausting it can be when there is always ‘the other side of the story.’ This ‘other side’ can be the externalization of effects (responsibility), or it can mean putting yourself in someone else’s shoes (empathy). What the other side rarely appreciates is how hard you have worked to be on yours, and how much effort it has been for you to truly believe in it. Whatever it takes then to make you switch sides (or at least recognize the opposite one), it must include some kind of reimbursement for the intellectual and emotional work that went into asserting and upholding your one truth. The grass may or may not be greener on the other side of the fence – the path there, the ‘empathy dividend,’ better be worthwhile. This is true for conflict management at the individual, institutional, societal, and international level: Israel and the Arab world, Shiites and Sunni, Pakistan and India, China and the US, North and South Korea, Occupy Wall Street versus the 1%, and the list goes on – the world is conveniently framed by antagonisms, by dualities that stubbornly resist both reconciliation and the parallel truths that Fitzgerald heralded.
China resolves dualities by grasping Yin and Yang as complementary, interconnected forces, and its defiance of dichotomous moral judgments is not always easy to accept for the Western mind. Henry Kissinger’s views On China are a notable exception to the many books (e.g. Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World and James Kynge’s China Shakes the World) that have recently examined how an ascendant and increasingly confident China could affect the rest of us. Kissinger seeks to understand China’s place in the world from the conditions of China’s complicated history and rich culture, not through the lens of Western morale. Kissinger does not portray China as hegemonial power but as an introverted nation that aims at protecting its ideal of a ‘harmonious society’ by making calculated offensive moves. He compares them to the Chinese board game Weiqi where the onus is on strategic encirclement rather than the black and white of absolute victory or defeat. Morality, essentially, deals with the question of how we treat the Other – the one who is not identical with us. Empathy, or even sympathy, is its foundation. With respect to China, this raises the question: To what extent can you leave your comfort zone, your moral center of gravity, to understand the Other before your absolute truth becomes relative, your ethical behavior situational, and your moral compass rudderless?
Moreover, a concept of morality based on Otherness presumes the Cartesian continuum of Ego and Self. But what if the line between Self and Other is fuzzy? In his writings, the British moral philosopher Derek Parfit (who became famous through his teleporter thought experiment and was recently portrayed in this stunning New Yorker article) rejects the integrity of personal identity and instead proposes a reductionist view of human life that renders the Kantian concept of the Self’s moral autonomy obsolete. If parts of your brain cells were to be transplanted into another body, he wonders, what would that do to yours and the other body’s personal identity? Who would be you? Parfit claims there would be two Selves (or none). Consequently, morality, in his view, is meta-personal and non-relational, and can only be derived from universal truths. To him, the loss of the concept of a separate Self is liberating, which puts him him in close proximity to Buddhists, who identify and recognize themselves in the Other:
“My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness... [However] When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.” [Derek Parfit]
Sam Harris’ latest book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values covers reductionist terrain as well, albeit from a very different vantage point. Harris seeks to constitute moral relevance from the alleged objectivity of scientific findings. But do we really want to entrust science all of our moral decisions? Science is not an authority on morality; it is its very subject. The moral landscape is not as flat as Harris wants us to believe. Or to riff on William Gibson: “Morality is here, it is just not very evenly distributed.”
Steven Pinker, in his recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, argues that the spread of literacy led to a “circle of empathy,” propelled by many rights movements of 20th century that brandished immoral behavior as anti-social and by doing so accomplished to largely ban it from Western societies. If you look at the Occupy Wall Street movement – as nascent as it may appear – one wonders if we may see a similar social norm-shifting phenomenon emerge in the corporate world. Writer and Techonomy conference curator David Kirkpatrick wrote a poignant piece on how the new social power we witnessed in the Arab Spring may lead to a corporate revolution, and indeed one may wonder: Will the American Fall usher in the demise of the corporation as we know it?
Trade is an arbiter of peace, as Pinker argues. Collaboration and inclusion produce morale, an effect that is amplified by the tremendous amount of social capital generated by social media and in particular through the principle of reciprocity at work on social networking sites. Facebook, through this lens, can be viewed as the biggest morale producer of our times, not in the sense of giving to charities or supporting causes one click at a time – the so-often-derided ‘clicktivism’ – but through rich interactions and an appreciation and experience of Otherness that is made possible through the voyeurism emanating from the transparency of individual behaviors at public display.
On the other hand, hyper-connectivity may yield the opposite effect: When everything and everyone is connected all the time, will the individual moral Self be neutralized by a seamless collective that absorbs Otherness into Sameness? In this vein, Eli Pariser argues that the Social Web is a self-selecting Filter Bubble, and that rather than experiencing the Other, we’re just experiencing an increasingly narrow projection of ourselves, so that our social graph, based on our web history of purchases, clicks, friends, and likes, will ultimately become congruent with the social universe of One. Then our lives and the lives of others will be identical, and even with our identity spread beyond our Selves, it will not occur in the way Parfit envisioned it.
This debate on the Other is the main debate we ought to have in light of the crisis of our economies. A ‘moral economy’ puts the Other at the center of all its activities, and if it truly does, it will no longer need the qualifier ‘moral.’ However, our largely secularized and rationalized economy is struggling to restore its moral and spiritual acumen (see Umair Haque’s musings on The Meaning Organization and my own piece on the Chief Meaning Officer), and simply borrowing best practices from religion as proposed by Alain de Botton’s “Atheism 2.0” (see a good rebuttal here) won’t suffice when what we are really lacking is not a practical “god-free” tool kit but an idealistic and spiritual vision, a social contract that is meaningful at the personal level. Economist Robert C. Solomon described it aptly: “Markets systems are justified not because of efficiencies and profits but because humans are first and foremost social and emotional beings, and markets provide a sympathetic community for social exchange.” Consequently, Brad McLane, in a recent Huffington Post article, makes the case for the role of a “Chief Community Officer,” a leader who can reconcile individual interests with the satisfaction of trusted cooperation (research has shown that trust and trustworthiness produce oxytocin, the “hormone of love”).
Embracing Otherness has been the foundation for business since its inception – business serves the Other, as in the customer, or the stakeholders of today and tomorrow (future generations), but it has gained new relevance. Another, perhaps more important side to it is innovation. Otherness is the very source of innovation. The deviation from the normal, the conventional, and the routine is how new and different ideas are born – ideas that change the world for the better, which at the end of the day is the entrepreneur’s fundamental moral obligation. This is the legacy of Steve Jobs and other “fools” who “saw the world as it is not” – and changed it.
The new moral leadership starts with business school education. Harvard Business School professor Rakesh Khurana therefore asks for a “reprofessionalization of the manager,” so that he can overcome the self-interest-driven homo economicus, the self-inflicted Machiavellian mechanisms of competition and short-term gain, and instead focus again on his true task – to build and nurture long-term cooperative relationships that allow an economy, a plurality of interactions and transactions between trusted and trusting Others guided by shared values, to thrive.
Back to the initial question: what justifies my existence? As a marketer, it is my responsibility to understand the Others and connect them through many parallel truths – even if it’s just for a moment, a flickering desire, a shared passion and experience, or a common purpose. I am an engineer of trust, and I enjoy communicating for the very act of communicating. I can create and cultivate “sympathetic communities” that rely on “woven interactions” rather than “vector communications.” In the best case, I can help build a house of opposites on the basis of the social capital and goodwill generated by meaningful brands that serve as moral stewards, embrace paradox, and balance the dialectic forces of competition and cooperation, codified behavior and open-ended innovation. I am not here to generate impressions; I am here to reward attention with lasting value.
(c) picture by Coolhunting